Karen Pittman on Extended Learning Time

February 2, 2012

Karen Pittman is President and CEO of Forum for Youth Investment and is known nationally as the leading advocate for youth development. Many credit her with launching the youth development movement and being an important thought leader promoting policies and systemic approaches to supporting young people's development, including the Ready By 21 initiative. See her full bio below. 

Q: You have recently cautioned us to think more clearly about diverting funds and efforts to expand learning time by expanding the school day.  Can you briefly summarize your concerns?

A: Ensuring that all young people are ready for college, work and life requires integrated communitywide commitments to learning. While the current push to expand learning time offers some great opportunities, it could actually have the opposite effect of decreasing overall learning time in communities. This is because if public funding currently available to community-based organizations through programs like the 21st Century Community Learning Centers is redirected toward schools, some CBOs will have to reduce their programming or even shut down.  

Also, a shift toward schools alone being held accountable for expanded learning time could destabilize effective collaborations that are finally in place, actively supporting effective community-school partnerships. But the most important thing to remember is simply that more time doesn’t necessarily equal more learning. Learning opportunities must be high quality if they are going to produce more learning – whether they happen in classrooms or CBOs. 

Q: The Learning in Afterschool Project is stressing the need to increase learning engagement in OST programs by promoting 5 learning principles that should characterize how we design activities in afterschool programs.  These principles are: learning that is active, collaborative, meaningful, supports mastery and expands horizons. Can you comment on which of these you think are most important?

A: They are all critical. Your principles reflect what our own field experience and research suggest about the characteristics of effective learning environments. They speak to both staff practices and program content, which is important. I think that working toward mastery, which goes right to the intersection of program content and staff practices – is something we need to be more intentional about in out-of-school time (OST) settings. Ensuring that young people have opportunities to engage in activities that build their skills and interests over time can be difficult in settings where participation and staffing patterns aren’t always as consistent as school.

Q: Do you have any advice of how best to get these principles better integrated in our expectations of afterschool programs?

A: In our experience generating data that give staff concrete feedback about the extent to which they are implementing these principles and the kinds of practices that support them is extremely  powerful. We know that professional development as usual – sending staff off to a training here and a training there – does not change organizational practice in sustained ways.  The Forum’s Center for Youth Program Quality is working with over 60 networks of OST programs around the country to build their capacity to do this kind of continuous quality improvement work. This kind of data-driven continuous quality improvement approach is the direction that education and other human services fields are moving as well.

Q: In California, all the dollars supporting afterschool learning opportunities for high school youth come from federal 21st CCLC funds (most of the funding for elementary and middle school programs   come from protected state funds); how important do you think it is that we include high school age youth in the afterschool equation?

A: It’s critically important that teenagers, and especially our most vulnerable youth, have access to supports and opportunities geared toward helping them build skills, connect with positive adults, and navigate the transition to adulthood. This is especially important given how many young people are not on track to graduate and how many more are not on track to graduate college and career-ready. California’s funneling all of its 21st CCLC dollars to high school programming has been a boost for the field as you all have had a chance to innovate programmatically and experiment with things like credit recovery.

Q: What do you see as the major risks and opportunities facing the out-of-school time (OST) movement?

A: I think the conversation that is unfolding about expanded learning opportunities represents a real opportunity for the field. The education community is acknowledging schools alone cannot ensure all young people are ready for college, work and life. The business community is acknowledging that young people need more opportunities to develop 21st century skills. Communities are building infrastructure to support broad goals, meaningful partnerships, and shared data. Now is the time for OST programs to shore up their commitment to quality and to put a stake in the ground about the kinds of outcomes they want to be held accountable for. If test scores and grades are not necessarily the best things to measure success by – what is? The development of communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills? Creativity? Hope? We need to do a better job of naming and measuring outcomes we know are critical to youth success and that programs can influence. 


Karen Pittman is a co-founder, President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment. She started her career at the Urban Institute, conducting numerous studies on social services for children and families. Karen later moved to the Children’s Defense Fund, launching its adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives and helping to create its adolescent policy agenda. In 1990 she became a vice president at the Academy for Educational Development, where she founded and directed the Center for Youth Development and Policy Research and its spin-off, the National Training Institute for Community Youth Work.

In 1995 Karen joined the Clinton administration as director of the President's Crime Prevention Council, where she worked with 13 cabinet secretaries to create a coordinated prevention agenda. From there she moved to the executive team of the International Youth Foundation (IYF), charged with helping the organization strengthen its program content and develop an evaluation strategy. In 1998 she and Rick Little, head of the foundation, took a leave of absence to work with ret. Gen. Colin Powell to create America’s Promise. Upon her return, she and Merita Irby launched the Forum, which later became an entity separate from IYF.
The Forum is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "action tank" dedicated to helping communities and the nation make sure all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work, and life. Informed by rigorous research and practical experience, the Forum forges innovative ideas, strategies and partners to strengthen solutions for young people and those who care about them.
This interview was originally published on the Learning in Afterschool blog. It is reprinted here with permission.
Sam Piha